Saturday, November 22, 2003

Exciting readings from Lee Ann Brown and Carla Harryman at Cornell yesterday, and reasonably well attended considering that a) the reading was held in the bowels of the rare books library, which is undergound; b) it was basically unpublicized except for flyers that appeared in English Department mailboxes that morning. Lee Ann spoke and sang; I liked the way she read the epigraphs from The Sleep That Changed Everything to us: "Louis Zukofsky says. . . ." For a moment these poets and thinkers are alive again and in conversation with her and us. She sang two ballads, one of which was about Susan Smith, who drowned her children in a lake and blamed the crime on an imaginary black man. Her new baby, Miranda Lee, and her husband (ooh, his name escapes me—but I liked him a lot, a large, gentle-seeming man who paced up and down in the back of the room with Miranda for most of the reading) came up at the end to perform part of a Noh play the two of them had collaborated on—a perfect combination of her childhood in Japan and North Carolinian heritage. (Her soft southern accent came as something of a surprise, given how very New York School-y her first book, Polyverse, is.) I was impressed to see the three of them up there, half-chanting, half-singing, Lee Ann bouncing Miranda Lee on her hip to the rhythm. Carla Harryman read a "play" (in the Steinian sense) whose title I didn't catch ("Mirrorverse"?) that was a terrific tumble of voices, competing urgently with each other, so that the total effect was the sublimation of anxiety into joy. I wish more Cornell people could have seen it; among other things, it was an inspiring example of two women at the top of their form, practicing a difficult art and making it seem as natural, or more natural, than motherhood.

Dinner afterwards with some of my fellow grad students, Joel Kuszai, Jonathan Monroe, Barry Maxwell (who's in Comparative Literature at Cornell), Lee Ann, her husband, and the baby, Carla Harryman, Barrett Watten, and Rosemarie Waldrop (who arrived after the reading). Gave copies of my book to Barrett (I actually called him "Barry," if you can believe that) and Lee Ann and then fretted a bit over the protocol of this. Should I give one to Carla and Rosemarie too? Probably. Barrett (that's my compromise) held forth on various topics and our end of the table had an interesting conversation about Vietnam's role as a dividing line between the generation of the New Americans and that of the Language Poets. According to Barrett, the ethical demand upon his generation (to go to war or not) required a kind of (existential?) decision that the New Americans had never had to make—that they were held, and held themselves, to a higher standard of consequence than the previous generation. That's why, he claimed, the earlier generation could get away with all kinds of bad behavior whereas the peccadilloes of the Language Poets are scrupulously unforgiven. He also mentioned the resentment his generation felt toward the New Americans' attitude that theirs had been the heroic time; I pointed out that this was how many members of my generation felt about his. In the end we agreed that this talk of generations tended to be sloppy and invidious—but it's still fun. He also gave me some good ideas for my dissertation—reframing pastoral for me as a moment of retirement from political power in which one refreshes and reconsolidates one's ideals, before going back out there and assuming power again. The best classical model for this is the Duke in As You Like It, but there are interesting parallels in the life of (for instance) Charles Olson, who renounced national Democratic politics in favor of trying to poetically configure the smaller micro-polis of Gloucester into a model for a new democracy. Much grist for my mill.

Today's the presentation. I'm going to read three poems for it: one from my book, one more a work of poetics, and one from Severance Songs. More pastoral, basically. I'll post what I say here or maybe over at As/Is. That's an exhausting blog to keep up with; as other contributors have remarked, one's one piece is quickly "erased" by the flood of others' postings. Perhaps not an unworthwhile experience. There's no way for me to keep up with its total output; I tend to just scroll through it now and then looking for phrases that catch my eye. Today I like Li Bloom's "Don't stare at the new girl".

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